V. MURILLO: 1617–82

There was a time, in our believing youth, when Murillo’s Immaculate Conception of the Virgin stood as high in repute as Raphael’s Sistine Madonna; now none so poor to do it reverence. The decline of Christian faith in Europe and America has taken half their beauty from pictures that we thought inherently beautiful. Murillo is one victim of that denudation.

But first a courtesy to Alonso Cano. A strange man—priest, duelist, painter, sculptor, architect. Born in Granada, he migrated to Seville, studied painting (beside Velázquez) with Pacheco and sculpture with Montañes. He designed, carved, and painted retables for the College of San Alberto and the Church of Santa Paula, where he competed successfully against Zurbarán. For the church of Lebrija he carved religious statuary that drew students from foreign lands to admire and imitate. He fought a duel, severely wounded his adversary, fled to Madrid, and won the protection of Olivares through the intercession of Velázquez. His paintings in and near the capital earned him a court appointment. In 1644 his wife was found murdered in bed; he accused his servant, but was himself charged with the crime. Again he fled from success; he hid in a remote monastery, was found, arrested, tortured; bore all pains without admitting guilt; was freed, and began again. In 1651, aged fifty, he returned to Granada, where he became a priest and a canon of the cathedral, and made for it statues, paintings, a lectern, and a portal of such excellence that his arrogance found pardon. Commissioned by the royal auditor in Granada to model a statue of St. Anthony of Padua, he finished it to the satisfaction of the official, who, however, haggled about the price. Cano asked one hundred doubloons ($3,200?). “How many days has it taken you?” the official asked. “Twenty-five,” said Cano. “Then,” said the auditor, “you esteem your labor at four doubloons a day?” “You are a bad accountant, for I have been fifty years learning to make such a statue as this in twenty-five days.” “And I have spent my youth and my patrimony on my university studies, and now, being auditor of Granada, a far nobler profession than yours, I earn each day a bare doubloon.” “Yours a nobler profession than mine!” cried the sculptor. “Know that the King can make auditors of the dust of the earth, but that God reserves to Himself the creation of an Alonso Cano”; and at once, in fury, he smashed the statue to bits.37 For a time it was thought that the Inquisition would imprison him, but Philip IV protected him, and Cano continued to paint pictures and carve statues—nearly all religious—that moved admirers of his multiple genius to call him the Michelangelo of Spain. He spent his earnings as fast as they came, usually in charities, and grew old in such poverty that the cathedral chapter had to vote funds for his relief. On his deathbed he rejected the crucifix offered him, because, he said, it was badly carved.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was quite another man—modest, gentle, pious, the idol of his pupils, the beloved of his competitors, the cornucopia of charity. Seville, then the metropolis of Spanish art, saw his birth in 1617, the last of fourteen children. He studied painting under Juan de Castillo, but, as his parents died poor when he was fourteen, the orphan earned his bread by painting coarse and hasty pictures for a weekly fair. Hearing that Philip IV was kind to artists, he made his way to Madrid(?), where, according to an uncertain tradition,38 Velázquez befriended him, lodged him in his own home, secured his admission to the royal galleries, and encouraged him to study the works of Ribera, Vandyck, and Velázquez.

However, we find him in 1645 again at Seville. A Franciscan monastery there had offered a resistible sum for seven large pictures; established artists scorned the fee; Murillo agreed to it, and produced his first masterpiece, The Angels’ Kitchen?39 showing angels coming from heaven, bringing food, cooking it, laying tables, and feeding the pious in a famine; Murillo, though he tried to follow the masculine style of Ribera and Zurbarán, told the story with his own turn for tender sentiment. This picture and The Death of Santa Clara40 made the artist’s fame; half of literate Seville came to admire, and commissions mounted. As these were nearly all ecclesiastical, Murillo poured out Virgins, Holy Families, and saints in happy profusion, peopling the Christian legends with such fair women, handsome men, charming gamins, rosy colors, and mystic atmosphere that Catholic Europe warmed to him as the most lovable expositor of the most lovable creed.

So fed, Murillo, aged thirty, ventured into marriage, filled his home with the noise, quarrels, and delight of nine children, and labored for them contentedly till his death. The cathedral chapter paid him ten thousand reals for the St. Anthony of Padua that still hangs there. A story suspiciously recalling a legend told of Zeuxis,41 but printed eleven years before Murillo’s death, assures us that birds flying into the cathedral tried to perch on the lilies in the picture, and pecked at the fruit.42

Though his subjects were nearly all religious, he made them human rather than ecclesiastical. If all Roman Catholic Europe took to its heart the many copies he sent out of his Immaculate Conception of the Virgin43 it was not only because they celebrated a theme especially dear to Spain and that age, but because it enthroned womanhood in a cloud of idealism and sanctity. The lovely and modestly sensual women of Andalusia inspired The Madonna of the Rosary,44 The Gypsy Madonna,45 and the darkly beautifulHoly Family with the Bird.46

And who has painted children better? The Prado Annunciation shows us a girl just entering her teens, diffident and delicate, the very chef-d’œuvre of life. For the many forms in which Murillo pictured Christ as a child, he found models in the pretty children around him in his home and his street; probably it was they who interested him, rather than the set theme; and he painted them as charmingly as any bambini of the Italian Renaissance. If he could not squeeze children into his religious pictures he painted them independently. The Haus der Kunst in Munich has a wall full of them: boys throwing dice, boys eating melons as a bearable way of washing their faces, a boy munching bread while his mother picks lice from his hair. A Boy Leaning out of a Window47 makes it plain that money and happiness have quarreled and parted; let him be A Boy with a Dog,48 and the world is his oyster. In the Beggar Boy of the Louvre the idealist painter takes leave of the supernatural, looks at life on earth, and finds it lovable even in rags. In his realism Murillo is still the idealist.

He lived, as he painted, without tragedy, except at the very end. Climbing a scaffold to finish a painting in a church at Cádiz, he lost his footing, fell, and ruptured himself so severely that poisoning set in, and soon the favorite son of all Andalusia died (1682), so suddenly that he could not complete his will. Over his tomb, by his instructions, were inscribed his name, a skeleton, and two words, Vive moriturus—”Live as though about to die.”

Through two centuries his reputation remained high for those who cared more for what a picture said than for how it said it. Napoleon’s generals spread his fame by stealing his works and selling them as legitimate loot. Incompetent copyists multiplied his paintings and stirred criticism to question his art. He knew the technique of his trade, but his range was too restricted by his success with the Church; he lent himself too readily to the feminine and sentimental side of life; and what began by being beautiful became, through stereotyped repetition, unimpressively pretty. His saints looked up to heaven so persistently that when Europe turned from heaven it lost sight of Murillo. For the same reason it lost sight of Spanish painting in general after 1680. While Europe debated Christianity, Spain clung to her medieval heritage, and not till Goya would her art startle the world again.

During Murillo’s life a hundred fatal factors ended the Century of Gold. Gold itself, and its foreign quest, were factors: the youth and vigor of Spain broke from the prison of the Peninsula to explore and exploit the Americas; and the gold they sent back corrupted Spanish life, encouraged sloth, raised prices, or fell into Dutch or Genoese bottoms carrying Spanish trade. The government hoarded the precious metals, debased the currency, expelled the productive Moriscos, multiplied and sold offices, taxed everything to the point of economic apathy, and squandered wealth in martial expeditions and court extravagance while industry languished, unemployment spread, commerce dwindled, population shrank, and cities decayed. The narrowly aristocratic government lost all dignity, put collection boxes in the streets, and solicited money from door to door to finance its domestic incompetence and its foreign defeats.49 Spanish armies garrisoning Sicily, Naples, and Milan, forcing their way through New World jungles and wilderness, wasting themselves in the Thirty Years’ War, fighting a losing battle against the incredible pertinacity of the Netherlands, drained away the human and material resources of a small, half-arid and mountainous state shackled by its boundaries in a sea controlled by commercial competitors and naval enemies. Only the monasteries and the churches remained, clinging to their enormous, inalienable, untaxable properties, and multiplying monks in costly idleness. While religion appeased poverty with promissory notes on Paradise, stifled thought, and invited Spain to live on its past, France and England rewarded industry, captured commerce, and entered the future. Adjustment to a changing environment is the essence of life, and its price.


I. All Spanish pictures mentioned in this chapter are in the Prado unless otherwise stated.

II. Pareja, after years of preparing Velázquez’ brushes, colors, and palettes and watching his mind and work, secretly used the materials himself, and finally painted so well that Philip IV, having mistaken one of Pareja’s canvases for a Velázquez, freed him; nevertheless Juan remained as a scholar and servant in the artist’s family till his own death.27

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